MOTHER's Biogas Automobile

The MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors plan to build a methane-powered car designed for maximum fuel efficiency.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
January/February 1974
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Think you can't operate a car on homemade natural gas? Think again!

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Our experiments with methane here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS have convinced us that over-the-road use of biogas is just about the poorest possible way to burn this fuel. Yet we're currently constructing several prototype "methane bugs" . . . ultra-small and ultra-light vehicles designed expressly for operation on our own homemade natural gas.

Why this apparent contradiction? Because we figure we'll be able to lick any methane problem we're likely to encounter if we can find a practical method of powering an automobile with the fuel.

Now there's no question in our minds about the actual operation of an internal combustion engine on "swamp gas." Dad's work with our trusty '48 Chevy powerplant and a few other research projects have proven — to our satisfaction — that homemade methane is a nearly ideal fuel for such beasties: it's easy enough to plumb up, it deposits far less crud in an engine than gasoline and it spews a relatively low amount of pollutants into the air as it burns.

This wonder fuel does have one slight drawback, however: methane is the lightest of the gaseous hydrocarbons and at atmospheric pressure — it takes approximately 135–160 cubic feet of pure methane (or 180–250 cubic feet of bio-gas) to equal one gallon of gasoline. This presents a problem of sheer bulk: unless you want to tow a dirigible around behind you, you're going to find your range severely limited if you try to operate the typical Detroit Juggernaut on homemade natural gas.

There are at least six or seven possible ways around this situation, however, and we're going to try them all:

[1] Homemade methane can be "refined" so that each cubic foot of the gas has the maximum possible Btu value.

[2] A special lightweight (it takes less fuel to push around less pounds) mini-vehicle can be designed just for operation on bio-gas.

[3] That super-compact automobile can be fitted with as large a fuel tank as possible.

[4] The ultra-light car's methane tank should be a pressure bottle able to withstand from 400 to 3,000 psi so that relatively large quantities of bio-gas can be compressed into the container.

[5] The vehicle's engine/transmission/drive-train assembly should be the smallest, most efficient combination possible. "Most efficient" — in this case — probably meaning a four-cycle, high-compression, air-cooled powerplant coupled to a stick shift.

[6] The mini-car should be carefully conceived to deliver maximum utility when operated within a particular — and somewhat limited (by 1972, but certainly not 1980 standards) — performance envelope: two place, minimum luggage, rather leisurely acceleration, 55 mph top speed, 200-mile range.

[7] The operator of the vehicle should be trained to drive the car for maximum fuel economy: easy starts, constant cruising speeds, etc.

If this all sounds like something of a drag well, we're sorry about that. The alternative may well be no driving at all (or motoring down the highway on gasoline that costs better than $1.00 a gallon).

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Post a comment below.


Jay Dillon
11/21/2011 6:43:40 PM
You mention in your article that methane is a very light gas. However, the methane is fed into the motor in vapor form, so comparing "liguid gasoline fuel" density to the methane fuel may not be correct. Gasoline is usable in vapor form and some claims for vapor carburetors in the past have (seemingly) shown that the best way to put the gasoline into a gasoline engine is to vaporize it completely first. I still think this may be a very important fact to get away from Henry Ford's original 20 or 25 mpg, which is what Big Oil has kept us at (approximately) for the past 100 years. The writer's effort in this article, of undermining the actual, verifiable, and exciting work of one lone inventor, is extremely negative and goes directly against the generally exciting efforts of Mother Earth News. I suspect that some Mother Earth News writers may not have been as progressive as one might have hoped. At any rate I think some of these lone inventors (especially those with very usable, working prototypes like Harold Bate!) have to be given very careful analysis and field investigation, because key assumptions based on standard technology may not be adequate to cover some of the nuances exploited by creative inventors.

Jay Dillon
11/21/2011 6:34:09 PM
(1) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that one does not have to do anything special to the homemade methane gas. Objection overruled. (2) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that a micro mini special lightweight car is not needed. Objection overruled. (3) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that for methane fuel system, a micro car does not have to be fitted with a gargantuan fuel tank. Objection overruled. (4) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that for everyday methane fuel use in a car, extremely high pressure tank is not needed. Relatively large quantities of methane are not needed because Methane fuel is superior in many ways to gasoline. Objection overruled. (5) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that no new engine is needed to use methane for car fuel; he simply used a carburetor attachment device added to the existing Hillman car engine. Objection overruled. (6) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that the car need not be redesigned, need not be micro mini tiny, need not be a two seater, need not carry "minimum luggage," need not feature "leisurely acceleration," need not have 55 mph top speed (he was going up to 70 mph or more in his Hillman converted methane car), and need not have maximum 200-mile range. Objection overruled. (7) Harold Bate proved and demonstrated that the operator of the vehicle needs no special training for penny pinching and fuel sipping methods of driving. Objection overruled. Also, Harold Bate showed we need not "not drive at all" and he proved we need not "motor down the highway on gasoline that costs better than $1.00 a gallon." Great hatchet-job writing though, a real achievement in ignorance by a running dog of the oil cartels!

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